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PP-Post supervisor from Stay

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By Henry TurnerKevin Haug is an unusual sort of Renaissance man. On the vanguard of cutting edge visual effects, his work, which has graced David Fincher’s films since Fight Club, Tarsem’s visually startling The Cell, and Marc Forster’s films Finding Neverland and now Stay, shows artistic innovation in visual effects often woefully absent from much higher budgeted films.But Haug is more than just a visually daring effects artist. In blogs on the manifxto.org website he reveals himself a champion of the industry position of the VFX artist, having had his say on how effects artists should have the opportunity to be credited with the exact work they’ve done on a film, rather than remain just one more faceless and nameless mouse clicker working under the aegis of a company with a weird name.And knowing that VFX artists often excel in particular areas of their craft, he talks about how it has become important for directors to cast their VFX artists with the same precision they cast the lead roles in their films. He has written widely on the expansion of VFX in films in general, and how artists must make the effort to raise their status in the industry, largely by maintaining tight control over their work as freelancers. But he’s not just talking about it. As one of the five main partners of the FXcartel, Haug is putting into practice his ideas about the importance of VFX artists and how they must stand up strong for themselves in an industry that general prefers them to remain anonymous technicians.“The whole point is that the visual effects community is locked in this ’50s studio system paradigm that just doesn’t make any sense anymore,” Haug maintains. “Ever since the French new wave, everybody is freelance, everybody works for the director in a little feudal fiefdom that exists for just as long as it takes to get the movie done—everybody works for the studio under the aegis of ‘your guy,’ and he works for the studio, so you don’t have to deal with them, you just deal with your guy. But visual effects ought to look more like art department, and given that idea, we put together a production service.”The production service is the FXCartel, which includes Haug, who lives in Los Angeles, and four partners in Montreal. Two are accountants specializing in tax cuts. Carole Bouchard is the entrepreneur overseeing strategic alliances, and there is also Gunner Hansen, the standout freelance supervisor in Montreal.“The idea was that I could go out and find a movie,” says Haug, “and through knowing these people, we could set up a corporate infrastructure where the money that was made on the movie could generate tax credits based on the labor that was working on the show, and that would pay the overhead. It’s not tons of money, but it’s enough to pay everybody’s overhead. The one thing I don’t like is working for a big vendor where I can’t tell who’s working for whom; I think the ideal size for a visual effects vendor is between 30 and 100 people—you get over one hundred people, you start getting all sorts of management levels and people break up into little clans and it’s not quite the same level of artistry and efficiency that you get out of a smaller group.”What Haug does with the FXCartel is create packages of smaller vendors and individual freelance VFX artists for particular films. To accomplish this he first determines, with the director, what effects are required and which techniques are most appropriate. “It’s about picking out the right people and overseeing that it all belongs in this movie,” he says. “In the old days—a half dozen years ago before DI had really taken over—the biggest challenge of the VFX supervisor was making sure the whole film looked like it was made by the same people. Look at some of the old Indiana Jones movies and they suffered from the fact that there were so many big chunks that ILM did months and months after the movie was over, with a different DP and production designer. I remember learning from Mike Fink when I was working for him that the real gig of a VFX supervisor is making sure that your department integrates with all the others and is part of the movie, not just some craftsman-like stuff that they bought to put in the movie.”Because of his work in packaging and coordinating artists and vendors, Haug has started taking the title of visual effects designer, rather than supervisor. “It’s an attempt to set some kind of distinction,” he explains. “The production designer is responsible for pretty much everything you see that isn’t worn by an actor. I’m kind in that same kind of boat, in that everything that is not possible to photograph ultimately becomes my responsibility. And it’s a long haul. I come in early, about the same time as the production designer, and I leave some months after the editor is finished what he’s doing. He may be off doing his mix, but when he’s locked the picture is when the serious deliveries to me start happening.”Haug’s recent work on Marc Forster’s Stay is an example of this. Stay tells the story of a man lingering between life and death, the place the Tibetan Buddhists call bardo. The film is loaded with unusual transitions and scenes in which reality is often literally stretched and put through strange periods of repetition. After working with Forster and determining exactly what sort of effects were required, and what techniques would be used to achieve them, Haug put together a package featuring (as he writes on a manifxto.org blog):• A medium/small vendor who specializes in the “harder” types of “photo-real” effects animation.• A medium sized vendor who specializes in particle systems and shots requiring a lot of R&D and custom tools.• A mad scientist.• A large post facility with a small feature division specializing in big compositing jobs and 2D environments. (Or matte paintings, if you insist.)• An illustrator/matte painter.• A mercenary band of animator/compositors under a rented roof.• A roto monster with his own box.• A commercial motion-graphics house.• A big West Coast post facility who could easily pump out last-minute 2K shots for pre-view screenings etc.“Basically the effects were divvied up depending on what people were good at,” Haug says. Philippe Desereau, the “roto monster” with his own Inferno box at home, took on what Haug calls the most horrifying shots—complex rotos in which a character is inside a cab and the backgrounds change, as he repeatedly gets in and out of the cab, while it’s raining. It’s called the Pas des Deux effect, after the classic short film by the great Canada-based experimental filmmaker Norman McLaren. Desereau took the better part of a year to complete these shots.“There was Klon, which is Gunner’s company, which amounted to about four people all in all, and they worked with a little company called Fog, three people, and between them they worked on a number of the more editorially based stuff, all the transitions primarily.”Frantic, Buzz, Intelligent Creatures, Fog, Klon film, Merlin, Fictions Science, Amen-Epoxy—these are just a few of the companies that were part of the package for Stay. One must look at the full credits list to fully appreciate the scope of what Haug assembled.One of the most unusual figures in the effects community is Doctor Bailey, the “mad scientist” Haug lists in his blog. Bailey, a master of digital spore animation, had already worked with Haug before on The Cell, and Haug knew that Bailey’s incredible images would be perfect for Stay’s Brooklyn Bridge finale, in which the lines drawn between life and death become literally tenuous. But this was an instance in which coordinating VFX artists was especially nec
essary.“Doc doesn’t do much compositing, and had he been left to do this on his own, he’d have gotten five or six shots done. So I teamed him up with Frantic Films in Winnipeg, because they’re technical enough to absorb the heavy overload of what he does without getting bogged down and losing it. When we shot it Dr. Bailey was there on the bridge and we were running around in the cold and it was all Steadicam and we weren’t at all clear which parts we were going to do, because he hadn’t really settled on a spore that Marc liked. So we just let them do whatever they did, and I think Frantic must’ve been rotoing that for weeks. In the end they were really successful, particularly in taking Doc’s crazy stuff and making it look great in that environment.”Haug is currently working with Forster again on the Will Ferrell comedy Stranger Than Fiction. Do effects artists get so focused on their work that they miss the emotional content of a scene? Not so. “We saw a section of Stranger Than Fiction today that we hadn’t seen with all the effects in it, and my coordinator was crying, and when the editor saw her crying, he started crying. It was really pretty funny.”

Written by Henry Turner

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